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The Truth About Bears: The Skills

Learn how to stay safe in bear country from myth-busting biologist Tom Smith.
Illustration by Andy Potts Illustration by Andy Potts

That doesn’t mean scream at the top of your lungs all the time. We’re out there to be part of the flow of nature. Good lord—we don’t want to have this blast zone. That’s stupid. In a lot of Alaska where I hike, I’m sharing the same area with 100 bears. But I never have trouble with them because I make noise appropriately. If you come to a blind spot, and there’s good probability there’s a bear nearby, clap, talk loudly, that sort of thing. If, after all you’ve done, something happens, and there’s a bear: 1) stand your ground; 2) ready deterrent; and 3) yell “hey, bear!”

Don’t hike alone. We don’t have a single incident in all of North America in which a bear has attacked a group of people. Yes, there was an incident in Alaska last summer when a bear charged and attacked a group [it was a NOLS crew, spread out], but to the bear it was 10 groups of one—it was one kid at a time. When you tease these things apart, you find that bears are risk-averse: They will avoid you if you group up.

Keep your distance.
In Kenai Fjords, we worked with black bears, and we were able to figure out at what distance—75 yards—people disrupted or displaced them. With black bears, you don’t expect an explosive response—but there were a few bears that reacted like, “Bring it on, little man.” Good stuff to know.

Be aware of the signals you telegraph. Don’t act like you’ve been violated when you get attacked after washing your hair with a fragrance that makes you smell like a 200-pound strawberry. If you smelled a bacon-and-egg shampoo with a vanilla conditioner, wouldn’t you come running? Why would you come into the world of an animal driven by olfactory capabilities and dope yourself to smell like a giant piece of food?

In the Alaskan tundra, don’t bring a banana-colored tent. I’ll release a paper this year mapping bear response to human-generated stimuli. In four years of field research, we’ve tested 728 scents, 487 sounds, and 88 visuals. When we tested a variety of fabrics, it should come as zero surprise that camouflaged fabrics were simply not noticed. But solid-colored fabrics of unusual colors (like bright yellow) solicited bears’ attention. Boldly colored tents and clothing make you an obvious feature on the landscape. Would I not have a yellow tent? All of my tents are bright yellow! But I don’t perch them out on a promontory where the whole world can see. Be aware that when you telegraph your presence by introducing novelty into a bear’s environment, you shouldn’t be too surprised when it comes to check you out.

Store your food properly. Canisters, though bulky and limited in volume, are nearly 100-percent bearproof. Hanging works but is a pain and ‘smart’ bears like those in Yosemite can get food bags down unless you follow all of the height/distance-from-tree-trunk rules [see diagram, right]. Lightweight, very portable electric fence systems are underutilized. In my field camps, we use a system that weighs just a pound or two, and we keep the food inside the fence with us. For instance, Sureguard [sureguard.com
.au] makes a palm-size model that runs on two AA batteries and delivers a very hot 8kV to the fence line.

Never, ever, ever play dead unless you’re knocked down by a grizzly. This is some of the most misunderstood advice out there. [And it shouldn’t be needed if you alert bears to your presence, carry spray, and use it.] But if you’re being mauled by a griz? Stay face down, legs spread, and cover your neck with clasped hands. Let the bear unleash its fury on your backpack. Stay still, and don’t move until it’s done. Black bears only attack to kill, so playing dead with one of those will be facilitated by the fact that you will, in fact, be dead soon enough.

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